A sensitive pessimist

30 December 2000 | Authors, Reviews

Pentti Saaritsa

Photo: Irmeli Jung

When we arrive in Oaxaca, we find a Sapotek culture pulsing with quiet wisdom, a people who, even in their appalling poverty, have preserved their joy in life, mezcal bars which threaten to overturn our blameless work schedules, and the house rented by the Finnish Writers’ Union, where the rooms we are shown to as are empty and unfurnished as the solitary confinement cells in the central jail.

But Pentti Saaritsa has the language skill and, more essentially, the art of relating to people as though he has been lifelong friends with the whole of humanity. During the first week, we explore the squares, markets and furniture stores of Oaxaca. Ritsa haggles with astonishing perseverance, with the result that, in the second week, we are the proud owners of two genuine Mexican desks, stools and standard lamps. But the typewriter takes up an entire chapter in Pentti Saaritsa’s autobiography. Untiringly, he finally reaches the price he wants. And so we settle in a town turned upside down by the Zapatista movement: ‘The Mexican typewriter has / its own handwriting: with letters that bounce / off the lines it continues / the story of my life….’

In his eighteen collections of poetry, Saaritsa has constantly been a lover of the line. For him, rhythm and melody must always preserve their fullness, and fragmentary riddles have never sufficed. A poem must walk on both legs, without limping. Neither has Saaritsa’s translation work been chosen at random. It all began with Neruda, and continued with Borges, Pessoa, Pasolini and many others.

Pentti Saaritsa knows the difference between black and white, intoxication and hangover, utopian hope and petty human selfishness. And from them he weaves a true dialectic of his own. A smile filtered through tears, and tears through a smile; behind the façade of every moment there lurks, beyond the reach of words, possibility or destiny, sometimes promising, sometimes threatening. But Ritsa does not like to be called a pessimist. Pessimism is, for him, a sensitive matter….

As a poet, Pentti Saaritsa openly went through a political period. He was one of the most influential voices in the left-wing artists’ movement of the 1970s. Like a true existentialist, he has since moved toward a poetry of extreme immediacy, text which is conversation between the writer and the reader in a particular place in chronological time. From his poetry, we can sense Saaritsa’s move from north Helsinki to the city’s southern shore. ‘A mild winter is a state of mind, / the sea black, unfrozen, like darkness itself / which seems to be gathering even / when it is lifting.’

Poetry has, for Ritsa, really become ‘a piece of journey carried with me’. Of the Sapoteks’ sacred mountain, Monte Albán, I wrote that ‘it is so high that it does not reach quite to the earth’. For Saaritsa, the mountain is a mysterious reminder of the transient aspect of human life: ‘What explanation would be broad enough to be true, / what enemy, what contagious disease, what destruction, / or else perhaps simple wanderlust: come from the north, stop, / spent a thousand years building, stop / continued their journey or gone home… / And then the ceaseless wind / and the eagles’ flight patterns like secret marks in the air.’

In his collection Elävän mieli (‘A mind alive’, 2000) Pentti Saaritsa builds a kind of three-phase structure, which brings vividly to mind the classical sonata form with its statement, development and recapitulation. Often, the poem’s ‘message’ or ‘basic statement’ is concentrated in a two-line aphorism at the end. At the beginning, he may give its Helsinki landscape, its ‘December without snow’. Then he builds a depiction of people’s possibilities in the darkness of the capital, as history passes over them with the force of a sou’ wester, ‘rattles every piece of loose metal, creaks / every gate and hums all night / in the tin roofs like a distant thunderstorm.’ When, in this way, he reaches the fifth season, ‘an over-ripe autumn’, what possibility is left to the individual at the mercy of greater forces: ‘all that can help is habit, torpor, / and the unfailing axis / of planetary motion.’

How often one would like to say to Ritsa, curtly and without ulterior motives, ‘Grin and bear it!’ But his answer would merely by that familiar grimace – the sort of expression which is born in someone who has a long-standing friendship with the whole of humanity.


No comments for this entry yet

Leave a comment